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HydGene Renewables growing green energy security

HydGene Renewables growing green energy security

HydGene is on the frontlines of a deep tech revolution in the rapidly expanding field of synthetic biology, producing sustainable and carbon-negative hydrogen from renewable biomass residues that can be broken down into sugar.

According to Dr Louise Brown, CEO and co-founder of Macquarie University spinout company HydGene Renewables, less than one per cent of global hydrogen production is classified as green or renewable hydrogen.

“The hydrogen market today is massive – a $130 billion industry based on fossil fuels where the hydrogen isn’t clean when it’s made, and it’s mostly used in chemical manufacturing such as producing ammonia for agricultural fertilisers,” Dr Brown explains.

“We must first decarbonise the hydrogen production sector so we can move towards the future for hydrogen as a driver in the green economy, where it can be used with fuel cells to produce electricity to deal with remote energy problems, or as a fuel for transport, and a whole range of other new applications such as the manufacturing of green steel. But to achieve that, we have to be able to compete with the fossil fuel industry and produce it at low cost, at scale, tapping into abundant renewables.”

Dr Brown co-founded HydGene with Professor Robert Willows, Dr Kerstin Petroll, and Dr Ante (Tony) Jerkovic. At the heart of the company is a bioengineered biocatalyst platform, an engineered microbe whose genetic code has been altered to enable it to take in sugars from plant-based materials such as straw, woodchips, paper, pulp – even human sewage – and convert them to hydrogen.

“We’re value-adding and upcycling problematic, high-volume biomass waste materials into a localised green energy source. The biocatalyst sits in a cartridge, it’s incredibly stable, we feed it the sugars, and the hydrogen is generated. And this biocatalyst material can do that for many months; we’ve got a batch that’s still going strong after one year, and as we continue to improve yields, we can really start to drive the cost down.”

The often-ignored elephant in the room, says Dr Brown, is the fact that hydrogen is a difficult molecule to move around and so most hydrogen today is used nearby where it is made.

HydGene’s technology is focused on making the hydrogen where and when it’s needed to remove the challenges of transportation and storage – ideally from renewable biomass sources already abundant on site. It’s local and readily scalable all at once, and with a carbon digestate from the process returned to the ground to improve soil health, it’s an ideal circular economy model at work.

HydGene found its genesis at Macquarie, where the founders enjoyed thriving academic and teaching careers before it was spun out, Dr Brown stepping down from her academic position in 2022 to focus on growing the startup.

Through the university, they took part in the CSIRO ON Accelerate initiative, an accelerator-style bootcamp to equip academics with a pathway to commercial impact with the entrepreneurial mindset to make it happen.

“We also worked with the university to win a $2.8 million ARENA R&D grant, with co-funding from Macquarie and industry partners. That enabled us to develop the tech and connect with industry partners such as BOC, AB Biotek and Bioplatforms Australia, and that’s where the core technology changed direction to focus on improved efficiency to meet commercial targets. We spun out after that and licenced our IP into the company, but Macquarie remains a crucial partner in the HydGene journey.”

Access to the unique facilities and expertise in Macquarie’s Australian Genome Foundry has been fundamental to the rapid development and commercialisation of HydGene’s technology.

“Deep tech requires expensive infrastructure and shiny toys to be able to do analytical measurements and scale-up, things a startup just doesn’t have access to. So, I think it would have been very difficult for us, outside of a university environment and without that support, to get that core technology developed when we were starting out,” Dr Brown says.

“We also gained valuable support through the programs and network at Macquarie Incubator, learning from like-minded entrepreneurs across varied industries.”

HydGene is one of several exciting synthetic biology companies to spin out of Macquarie University in the last year, part of a comprehensive strategy supporting academics to commercialise their research.

“HydGene is researching and developing a scalable, renewable solution to some of the energy security challenges in Australia and beyond,” says Professor Dan Johnson, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research, Innovation and Enterprise).

“Developed by Macquarie-based experts within our unique facilities, it’s a shining example of the potential we’re unleashing through providing an ecosystem for innovative researchers to pursue a different path to impact.”

For Dr Brown, making the shift from academic to entrepreneur has been challenging, but she has no regrets.

“I think it’s been probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But the value I get out of it, the speed we can move at… I love the fast pace of it. I love that we’re having an impact in the real world and starting to solve urgent problems that genuinely need solutions.”

The startup has just completed a highly successful $6 million capital raise, including investments from the Clean Energy Finance Corporation’s lean Energy Innovation Fund and specialist UK investor Agronomics. HydGene will draw on the additional capital to establish a pilot plant, expand its team, and conduct further research – boosting our nation’s GDP and generating new employment opportunities in the process.

“We very much want to revolutionise the way that we can make green molecules, and not just hydrogen – we’re already working on a strain that can take nitrogen from the air and make an ammonia-based fertiliser. We’re looking at other small molecules that today come from the fossil fuel industry, seeking to find a biological pathway that can make them in a cleaner way.”

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